Trigger Warning: Discussion of rape and sexual violence.
Sally Hemings was not a mistress. She was a young, enslaved girl who was raped by the man that owned her. Hagar was not a second wife. She was also a young, enslaved girl who was raped by the man that owned her.
Rape is any non-consensual sex. Consent can only be given by adults who are fully in their right mind, not under any sort of duress, and who have the full capacity to say no without negative consequences.
A slave can’t say no. Any time a slave is made to have sex with those who own them, it is rape.
A few weeks ago, Hagar came up in the lectionary. I listened to a lot of pastors that week hoping to hear a word of truth about her and her situation. A word that could bring comfort to those who understand what it is like to be abused. A word about how God does not abandon those who have been destroyed by powerful men who do not care about how they use you or abuse you. A word about how we are called to protect the most vulnerable in our society and be there to lift up and defend men, women, and children who are victims and survivors of rape, and abuse.
What I heard instead was a lot of saving face. Abraham is a hero of the Bible, just like David, the Church fails to be honest about how they rape women and ruin their lives. That isn’t a surprise. We live in a society that often protects powerful men at the expensive of vulnerable women. That bring me back to Sally Hemings. Many people do not realize that Sally herself is a child born from rape. Her father owned her mother. Sally was not her father’s only child. One of Sally’s most famous siblings is none other than Martha Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson’s wife. That’s a tid-bit they don’t teach you in history class. Here in the United States we protect important men. We do not discuss Sally Hemings, and when we do, we refer to her as Tom’s mistress, not someone that he raped for years; not someone with whom he fathered six children that he then kept as slaves until his death. We don’t talk about that. It would ruin Tom’s image. It is much better for us to say she was his mistress.
We have a responsibility to be honest about this kind of history. Stories like Sally’s and Hagar’s need to be told in their fullness and not white-washed (pun intended) to save the image of a powerful man. We must do this because when we do not, more people get hurt. More women end up like Monica Lewinsky, a punch-line at the end of a joke about presidents. They end up with their names dragged through the mud. They are treated as social pariah’s by those who should be there to help them get out of the terrible cycle of abuse that they find themselves in. Instead, we first call them names. Then clean up the history and forget about them.
We in the Church have got to stop adding to this by trying to keep our biblical heroes safe. Abraham was a rapist. So was David. Lot offered his daughter’s up to an angry mob to be raped. All of these men are heroes of the Bible. So how can we tell the truth to our congregations about them?
First, we have to start having real conversations about abuse in church. I know it is uncomfortable, but people who are experiencing abuse need to know that our churches are filled with people who can help them, who care about them and are willing to stand by them. They need people who will be willing to hear their stories and respond with compassion not accusations. They need to know they will not be blamed or shamed for their own abuse. We have to tell them.
Second, when these themes come up in biblical texts on the lectionary, we have to be honest about them. There is hope in the story of Hagar that is sorely needed by those who have been abused. God is with Hagar in her son in the wilderness. God makes the same promise to Hagar as God makes to Abraham. Hagar has the chutzpah to name God, and God lives up to the name. God Who Sees. God saw her. God sees all of those who are abused. As the church, we are God’s hands and feet and it is our job to see those whom God sees, to love those whom God loves, to care for those whom God cares for.
Third, we must be prepared to act when someone in need asks for help. Have resources on hand. Know how to contact local shelters. Learn about the options that those who have experienced abuse have. Get trained and get others in your congregation trained on how to deal with these situations, and remember that they happen across al races, genders, orientations, and abilities, ages and economic statuses.
Fourth, Please for the love of all the is holy read some commentaries, exegesis, or systematic theology done by someone other than an straight, dead, White guy. Womanist theologians have been telling ya’ll about Hagar for years, so stop and listen!